Henry's Court: The Fools

Will Somers

There is a mysterious man in some of Henry VIII's family portraits. Henry stands to the left, and his three children stand in order of precedence: Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth. But the man standing behind them isn't part of Henry's family... Not blood family, anyway.

The man is Will Somers. He's the male protagonist in my novel Under These Restless Skies. He was Henry VIII's favorite fool, and he appears in several other portraits, as well as the frontispiece of Henry's personal psalter.

Will was an "artificial" fool, as opposed to a "natural" fool, who was a person with mental disabilities. Will came to the court as a teenager around the time Anne Boleyn caught the king's eye, and stayed with Henry throughout the rest of his reign, acting as a court jester on occasion, but more frequently as Henry's personal entertainer, playing rhyming games, and engaging Henry in conversation. He was said to be able to gently gibe the king out of his melancholy moods.

The status of a royal fool was somewhat like a combination of a family member or a beloved pet, which is why will was included in so many portraits with the king and his children. However much affection the king or noble might have for them, fools were possessions. Today, we'd call it a form of slavery, because under the law, fools could be seized from the general populace and brought to noble courts, where they could be traded, sold, given as gifts to others, etc. They could also be beaten for insolence if their jokes went too far. Will made a joke of it, but it appears Henry was violent with him on at least on occasion.

Two of Henry's fools are pictured in the Whitehall family portrait. The woman on the left is thought to be Jane Foole, and Will is on the right, a monkey perched on his shoulder.

Jane Foole

Little is known about her, but she appears to have been a “natural fool,” a person with mental disabilities, for the accounts show that her head was kept shaved. She seems to have begun her time at court in Anne Boleyn’s household, but records indicate she was in Princess Mary’s household in 1537, after Anne’s execution, which raises all sorts of interesting questions.

There she appears to have remained, throughout Mary’s reign as queen, then she passed to Queen Elizabeth’s household upon Mary’s death. Afterward, she vanishes from the records.

Jane the Fool is thought by some to be the figure in the Whitehall Family Portrait in the doorway opposite Will Somers, though others believe it is Mother Jak, who may have possibly been a wetnurse for Prince Edward as an infant. There’s no solid record of Mother Jak or any indication of her identity. (The woman erroneously labeled “Mother Jak” in Holbein’s sketches of the court members is actually one of Thomas More’s foster children, a discrepancy which can be forgiven because she was at court during an absence of Sir John Cheke, who identified the portraits.)

Mother Jak seems to have been confused with Sybil Penn, who was Edward’s “dry norrice,” as she is called in her recommendation letter from Sir William Sydney. As Ernest Philip Alphonse Law says in his rather prim Victorian history of Hampton Court Palace, Mistress Penn’s grave was “irreverently disturbed” when the church was pulled down in the 1820s, and her ghost has haunted the palace ever since. This is where the confusion comes in, because some say it’s Mother Jak who haunts the palace. Maybe it’s both.

Laughing Jester, c. 1500.
Netherlands. Unknown artist

One of Henry's "natural" fools was a man named Patch. I have not been able to locate any solid biographical information for Patch, or even his real name. (“Patch” seems to have been a nickname which meant “fool,” like a patch on clothing fools the viewer into thinking it’s whole.)

Patch belonged to Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey gave Patch as a gift to the king to try to regain Henry's favor, noting he could have sold patch for 1000£. Patch was not happy about being sent away. Cavendish recorded that it took six men to tie the sobbing, raging Patch to his horse so he could be brought to Henry's palace.

Wolsey may have been hoping Patch would replace Will in the king's favor. If any of the recorded stories are true, Wolsey may have disliked Will, who once tricked him out of ten pounds to give to the poor at the Cardinal's gates. It's alleged that Will had a hand in Wolsey's fall when he went to Wolsey's cellar to get some wine to drink and discovered the casks filled with gold, which the king thought Wolsey intended to use to finance a rebellion against him.

Patch may have been “Sexton,” a fool referenced in the expense ledgers of the court, who is also associated with Wolsey. However, this would have made Patch quite elderly, because there is a latter from January, 1536 in which a courtier, Thomas Bedyll, suggests to Cromwell a replacement for Sexton “whiche because of aige is not like to cotinew.” The two names appear on the same ledger page on occasion, but that doesn’t rule out entirely that they could refer to the same individual. There seems to have also been a fool called Patch at the court of Henry VII, leading to further confusion.

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